As night descended on Oak Hills, Cassidy hit the streets. She drove slowly, but not out of necessity. There wasn’t much traffic, even on a Friday night. She let instinct steer her down roads she knew so well, heading steadily for the centre of town. Cassidy allowed herself to drift, casting her eyes from side to side, examining the houses as she rode past.
Signs of preparation for the Fourth of July were already in evidence. Bunting draped across windows, flags rattling in the steady breeze outside front doors. It was one aspect of small-town life that Cassidy missed.
Of course, nobody made as big a deal of Independence Day as Washington D.C. Every year, the fireworks from the Capitol would turn night into day in a spectacular display that could only be rivaled by a meteor shower. But still, it couldn’t compare to those balmy nights of her childhood when Cassidy and her friends – the most rag-tag bunch of kids from the neighborhood – would scramble out of her bedroom window and gather on the roof of her porch to watch the fireworks from the town square. It was their own private party. They’d munch on homemade popcorn and candy-apples, washed down with ice-cold lemonade and, for one night a year, they could pretend the world was as magical as it was in their dreams.
Memories of those nights brought their faces to mind: Jimmy Palmer – he of the inappropriate comments, freckle-faced and mischievous. Winnie Hefferman – a stout girl with the kind of daring young boys only hoped for. Jason ‘Double-J’ Johnson – the quietest member of the group, peering out at the world through a sheet of lanky brown hair. Danni Rodell – bright in looks and brains, with her wild red hair and an imagination to match. The cousins, Brody and Cody – twins in body and temperament. They were bigger than boys two years older and never took anything seriously. And Landon Reese – even then, a looker. Even then, their leader.
For the first time since arriving in town, Cassidy found herself smiling for real. They were good days. Days to be children. Days to wonder. Days to cherish. She flicked on the radio, and let the music guide her on her tour through her memories.
Cassidy’s good mood lasted as long as it took her to reach Pistols Bar & Saloon, a couple blocks south of Main Street. The parking lot was jammed with cars, and the crowing whine of a country tune spilled through the doors and out into the night. Cassidy stopped at the entrance to the parking lot.
She knew there was no chance the bar would be this full on any other Friday. This was a special weekend. The town would be crammed with visitors from all over, and of course, they’d all drift to Pistols to get the party started early. She knew she couldn’t avoid it any longer, so she steered her car to the far side of the lot and found a parking space. Making sure she had a fresh pack of cigarettes in her purse, she struck out across the lot toward the entrance.
Cassidy hadn’t put much thought into her wardrobe for the evening. She seldom did. A simple white, sleeveless T-shirt, over faded jeans, tucked into stylish boots that clicked on the gravel as she walked. Pistols was styled after the saloons from the old Westerns, right down to the swinging front doors. They creaked in protest as Cassidy pushed through, and immediately she was hit with the smell of smoke, hay and sweat. It was a heady mixture.
The bar was close to bursting, and the buzz of the crowd managed to soar above the drone of the jukebox in the corner. Cassidy edged her way through the press of people, angling toward the bar that ran the length of one wall. Nobody paid her any attention. When she reached the bar, she had to raise her voice to get the bartender’s attention. He was young, barely out of school, but he had a nice smile.
“What can I get you?”
“A Stardust martini, please.”
“A Stardust martini!”
Cassidy sighed. This was going nowhere.
“You don’t know what that is, do you?”
Cassidy cringed at the use of the word ma’am. She was a ma’am. When had that happened?
“A vodka martini, then.”
“Shaken, not stirred, right?”
Cassidy was quickly downsizing her opinion of his smile - from nice, to annoying.
“No. You stir it. A shaken martini is a watered down martini. Do I look like the type of girl who’d be satisfied with that?”
“You tell ’em, Cas!”
Cassidy turned at the sound of the new voice. She barely got a glimpse of a bright red shirt, emblazoned with the crow heralded as the Oak Hills High mascot, when she was suddenly lifted into the air by a pair of tree trunks masquerading as arms. She shrieked at the top of her voice as her boots left terra-firma and continued upward for a long, long time.
From somewhere in the vicinity of the ceiling, she looked down, into a beaming, bright red face. The man’s pale blue eyes danced with fun, and he barked out a deep laugh that wouldn’t have sounded out of place coming from a bear.
“Damn, Cas! How you doing?”
Brody jiggled her up and down a bit. Just for chuckles, she guessed.
“Put me down, you lunk!” she yelled, slapping his shoulders with her bunched up fists.
Brody frowned, looking like he was considering the proposition.
“Okay,” he said, and promptly let go.
Cassidy shrieked again as she suddenly plunged back to the floor, but Brody caught her again before she hit. Chuckling, he set her gently back on her feet.
“You think that’s funny?” she demanded.
“Was for me,” said Brody.
Staring into his open, innocent face, it took only seconds for Cassidy to return his smile. That was always the way with Brody, and Cody for that matter. They were childish and ill-mannered, but you’d be damned if you didn’t love them.
“You made it,” said Brody, flinging his arms out and nearly knocking a random guy into a pillar.
“I take it I’m not the first?” said Cassidy.
“Nah, a bunch of us are in back!” Brody jerked a thumb over his shoulder, “Come join us.”
“Let me pay for my drink.”
Cassidy turned back to the bar, where the bartender set her martini down. He held up three fingers.
“Three dollars?” Cassidy was impressed, “Beats D.C prices, that’s for sure.”
Brody held up four fingers, and the bartender dutifully handed over four beers without bothering to ask for money. Cassidy fell into Brody’s wake and let him barge a path through to the back of the bar. There, on a raised dais was a row of bench tables set against the wall. The wall itself boasted black and white prints of stars from old Westerns: everyone from John Wayne, to Gene Autry, to Clint Eastwood. A greet cheer rang out from the far table as Brody and Cassidy approached. Cassidy felt the blood rush to her face as the entire host sprang from their seats and rushed to greet her. It seemed the whole gang was there: Jimmy, Jason, Winnie, Danni and, of course, Cody.
Cassidy was forced to go through the whole “Put me down, you lunk!” routine again before Cody allowed her to greet the rest of her friends. There were a few other people in the group. Brian May, who she remembered from Chem. Lab back in school, as well as Winnie’s husband Ronald, an orthodontist from Pittsburgh, and Cody’s wife, Marlene.
“Cody, you got married?” asked Cassidy as she settled into a seat.
“Don’t sound so shocked!” said Cody, feigning offense.
“Can you blame her?” said Brody, “Look at you!”
The irony of Brody’s statement wasn’t lost on any of them. Even after all these years, you still couldn’t tell them apart unless you really knew them, and a warm round of laughter rippled through the group.
“Looks like half the senior class is already here,” said Jimmy, after the obligatory round of small talk was dispensed with.
“More will come in tomorrow,” said Winnie, “Mrs O’Carrol up at the school said just about everyone RSVP’d.”
“Mrs O’Carrol’s still alive?” Brian sounded shocked.
“Yup!” said Jason, “Seventy-two and still goin’.”
“And she’s running the reunion?”
“Well, I guess we know what that means…” said Cassidy.
“No drinking, no swearing, no dancing too close!” the whole group chimed in, filling in the old woman’s motto they’d heard so often at any high school function.
“I wonder if Sarah Marshall’s gonna be there?” said Brody, a kooky smile spreading on his chubby face.
“The head cheerleader?” Cassidy had a vague recollection of a willowy blonde with too much leg and not enough brains.
“I had the biggest crush on her,” Brody admitted.
“We know!” said Cody.
“Everyone had a crush on her,” said Brian, “Every guy anyway.”
“Nu uh…” Brody shook his head, “Landon never did. Only had eyes for Cas!”
A sudden hush descended. Even the hum of the crowd and the thump of the music seemed to fade. Cassidy tried to sink into her seat. All eyes focused on her. Looks of sympathy that, at the same time, were full of questions.
Brody quickly realized his mistake, because he said loudly: “If she shows up, I’m gonna tell her. Lay it all out there and see what happens.”
“I’d pay tickets to see Sarah Marshall slap you in the face,” said Danni, somewhat biting.
Brody looked guilty.
The laughter was muted this time, and Cassidy couldn’t help but notice that their gazes still lingered. She hated those looks, and could think of only one way to break the tension.
“Who’s up for tequila?” she said.
This brought the loudest cheer yet.
“Cas? You okay getting home?”
Cassidy shivered as soon as she stepped through the saloon doors, back out into the parking lot. After the oppressive heat of the bar, with it’s mass of bodies, even the early summer air carried a chill. She briskly ran her hands up and down her arms, trying to ease an outbreak of goose bumps. She turned to Brody, who came out just behind her, and smiled.
“Sure,” she said, “I’ll be fine. I’m just going to walk a bit. Clear my head.”
“I could go with you,” he offered.
“No, that’s okay,” she said, “You go on home. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Brody struck out for his car – against all expectations, a tiny fifteen year old Pinto. He opened the door, but hesitated before he got in.
“Hey Cas!” he called.
“Look, I’m sorry about earlier,” he said, “When I said that… you know, about Landon?”
“It’s okay, Brody.”
“Were you hoping that… maybe… he’d be here tonight?”
“Actually, I was hoping he wouldn’t.”
“Yeah,” Brody sounded sad, “I guess that’s fair. Anyway, it was great seeing you again.”
“You too, little man!”
Brody grinned, then climbed into his car and drove off. Cassidy started walking. She had no clear destination in mind, but felt she needed some air before heading home. She turned north, and then east on Main. It was still the hub of the entire town, boasting the court house, the post office and most of the retail stores. Three blocks down, she found herself turning right, and following an oft-tread path without even being aware of it. Soon, she reached a low fence, and stopped.
E.P Sullivan Elementary School.
Cassidy wondered why she’d headed this way. She certainly had no intention of doing so. Yet, now that she was here, she found she couldn’t resist and swiftly scaled the fence. Walking along the grounds, Cassidy couldn’t help noticing how small it seemed. She supposed any full-grown adult would think that if they ever returned to elementary school. Stuff seemed a whole lot bigger from only three feet up.
Cassidy bent low as she passed underneath the monkey bars, grabbing them and vaulting along from hand to hand as she went. She approached the swing set that formed the centerpiece of the playground. The chains were new, as was the baseboard, but despite all that, it was still the same swing set.
She sat down, wrapping her hands around the chains and pushing against the ground with the tips of her toes. She swayed back and forth, looking around but not really seeing anything. It was like a veil had fallen over the old playground, and Cassidy could make out shapes behind it. Shadow figures of young girls and boys, chasing the sun with reckless abandon in those all-too fleeting moments of freedom known as recess. Sounds came next. Laughter, and squealing. High-pitched voices raised in excitement. She glanced at the swing to her left, and the feeling grew stronger, as she drifted back…
“I don’t see what the big deal is!”
“It’s a big deal, coz everyone says it’s a big deal.”
“Still… don’t see why I gotta be the one.”
“Just shut up, and do it!”
“Hey, you ain’t the boss of me!”
“Wass’amatter? You scared?”
“I’m not scared!”
“Oh, yeah? Prove it!”
“You ain’t doin’ it!”
“Neither are you!”
“Okay, on the count of three, we kiss! You ready?”
“One… two… three…”
Cassidy jerked when the voice sounded behind her. Her legs shot out, and she instinctively tightened her grip on the chains. Her equilibrium shifted, and before she knew what was happening, the world tilted. She saw the shapes of the monkey bars and roundabout zip downwards, a split second before the stars came rushing into her field of vision as she went over backwards.
Cassidy was still screaming when she felt two hands grab her shoulders, stopping her fall. The hands eased her back into an upright position, and Cassidy immediately planted her feet on the ground before leaning forward as she started hyperventilating. She heard the clink of the chains as her savior pushed through the gap between the swings to come round in front of her. She saw a dim shape appear. Whoever it was crouched down and placed a hand on her knee.
Cassidy still found breathing difficult, but she forced herself to look up… into a face she hadn’t seen in six years.
The changes to that face were slight, but pronounced. The cheekbones were sharper, all trace of baby fat having long since departed. Fine, gentle lines around the eyes that hadn’t been there before. A lilt to the corners of the mouth that crinkled in a concerned smile. One that said that those smiles had come less and less as the years faded by. But it was still the same face. Still…
“I repeat,” said Landon, “Hey you.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to rescue you.”
“Are you kidding me?” Cassidy shot back, “You’re the reason I fell! You don’t sneak up on people like that!”
“I didn’t sneak,” said Landon, “I just walked. Where were you?”
“Just then… It’s like you were a million miles away. Where were you?”
“A million miles away…”
Landon studied her for seconds that seemed like hours. His eyes darted everywhere, as though he were checking that she was all in one piece, or that she was real. Cassidy couldn’t tell which.
“You sure you’re okay?”
Landon nodded, and stood. He took his hand off her knee as he did so, and Cassidy felt her whole body jerk in response. The place where he’d touched her felt as though it were superheated, and she had to shut her eyes until the feeling passed. When she opened them again, she kept them fixed firmly on the ground, not daring to look at him. Landon stood still for a moment, then moved to the swing beside her. She didn’t watch as he sat down, or bother to glance at him as he slowly started rocking back and forth.
The silence between them drew out like a blade.
“So…” said Landon, when he couldn’t take it anymore, “How are you?”
“Fine,” said Cassidy, “You?”
“Fine. You just get in today?”
“I’ve been around. How’s D.C?”
“Landon. Are we really going to do this?”
“This!” she turned to face him at last, “This… inane small talk. Are we really going to do this dance? Because it’s been a long day, and I’d rather avoid it, so…”
Landon was off the swing so quickly, that she blinked in surprise. He walked away a couple of steps, his back to her, and placed his hands on his hips. His back was ramrod straight, and Cassidy recognized the tension coursing up his spine. Silhouetted against the moon, he struck a pose eerily similar to his childhood hero, Peter Pan.
Cassidy wanted to apologize, and found that she couldn’t. Instead, she hung her head again, and traced idle shapes in the dirt with the tip of her boot. She heard, rather than saw Landon turn around.
“I come here sometimes,” he said.
His voice was soft, as though it was coming from the other side of that imaginary veil. Cassidy forced herself to meet his eyes. They had that faraway look, as though he wasn’t actually seeing her, but seeing the memory, just as she had only moments before.
“You come here when you’re in town?”
“Just to think,” he went on, as though she hadn’t spoken, “To remember… Things weren’t so complicated here, and I guess I miss that.”
“I miss it too,” she admitted.
“Yeah, well, anyway…” he started backing away, “I’ll be seeing you.”
“Sure,” she said, “See you.”
She watched him as he ambled all the way across the playground and over the fence. Her eyes didn’t leave him until he was well down the street, swallowed by the shadows.